Canadian Tar Sands: CETA may force the EU to accept this dirty fossil fuel. Image: Greenpeace.
It is one of a 'new generation' of trade deals agreed in secretive negotiations around the world. It has been described as the 'ugly brother' of TTIP, the EU-US trade deal, and the 'most ambitious' trade agreement that the EU has concluded. And the European Parliament is voting on it today.
The EU/Canada trade deal threatens to put corporate interests over many things that we in Britain take for granted. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement – to give it its official name – risks our food standards, undermines our rights at work, and fails to adequately protect the environment or bolster efforts to stop runaway climate change.
While civil society has largely been left out of negotiations, it seems that corporate lobbyists have been closer to the action.
If the European parliament votes CETA through today, much of the deal can be provisionally implemented without the agreement of member states. While Britain remains part of the EU, we will be bound by this. If our parliament ratifies CETA before we leave the EU we will be bound by the whole thing.
Brexit or not Britain faces CETA, or something that resembles it uncannily. Determined to prove that leaving the European Union does not mean that the UK's free trade hopes are dashed, the way the government has dealt with the CETA process could be an indicator of how trade and investment policy works post-Brexit – and it isn't looking good.
CETA is being seen as something to emulate in future free trade agreements, including with the European Union and Canada. “We can pick up the almost complete agreement between the EU and Canada, and if anything liberalise it,” wrote David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on the for Conservative Home.
For now though, the government is not giving up on CETA. Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, who is no stranger to the world of corporate lobbying, had committed to debating CETA on the main floor of the House of Commons. But he managed to bury this long awaited session to a House of Commons committee room on Monday 6 February: the same time as the Brexit Bill vote.
It’s not surprising the trade minister was so keen to sneak this deal past MPs. CETA challenges our already flawed democratic system by handing over more power to multinational corporations through the Investment Court System. This has replaced the notorious Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism in EU investment negotiations, and can force governments to compensate corporations over public interest policies that threaten their profits, bypassing national legal systems and courts, and hugely undermining the ability of MPs to legislate on vital matters of public interest.
It's these corporate courts which have been one of the things most rattling people about trade deals like CETA. A European Commission consultation on investment protection and TTIP in 2014, which had nearly 150,000 replies, found 'wide-spread opposition' to ISDS.
UN Independent Expert Alfred de Zayas has described ICS as “a zombie of ISDS” and argued that ICS and ISDS should be abolished.
“It is States, particularly developing States, and their populations that need protection from predatory investors, speculators and transnational corporations, who do not hesitate to engage in frivolous and vexatious litigation, which are extremely expensive and have resulted in awards in the billions of dollars and millions in legal costs,” he said in a UN press release.
CETA will increase the number of companies able to sue the EU and its member states. Research by Gus Van Harten of York University and lawyer Pavel Malysheuski published in 2016 found that the beneficiaries of ISDS have “overwhelmingly been companies with more than USD1 billion in annual revenue – especially extra-large companies with more than USD10 billion – and individuals with more than USD100 million in net wealth.”
As well as threats to democracy, food safety, public services and workers' rights, CETA is a massive danger to environmental protection. The European Commission argues that the agreement contains 'strong rules' to protect the environment, but environmental experts who have seen it argue that it can't be enforced adequately if they are violated and the language is weak.
One of the major threats comes from industries like mining and fossil fuel extraction. As highlighted by a group of NGOs earlier this year, “The extractive industry is prolific in launching arbitration lawsuits. Over 50% of global mining companies are based in Canada.”
Canadian companies already have form. For example, in 2016 Canadian energy company TransCanada launched a US$15-billion lawsuit against the US government under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because of the pre-Trump decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline.
CETA could also increase imports into Europe of oil from Canada's destructive tar sands. As well as a devastating impact on the climate through emissions and deforestation, these are also causing destruction in and risk the health of First Nations communities, including poisoning their water supplies and destroying sacred territories.
It was hoped that the EU's Fuel Quality Directive could have stopped tar sands oil coming into Britain because of its much higher emissions, compared to conventional oil.
Pressure from campaigners killed TPP and TTIP. Whatever happens with today's vote on CETA, now is not the time to hold off the pressure. Although there can be provisional application of most of the deal if it passes, there does still need to be ratification in regional and national EU parliaments for it to take full effect.
In Britain there is important work to do when it comes to future trade deals negotiated with countries like the US and Canada, but also others around the world.
Mark Dearn, War on Want's senior trade campaigner says that the movement is looking out for what comes next, including a potential US-UK trade deal post-Brexit. “Is the movement ready?... (I) very much so,” he says. “People have become very wise to the threat of trade deals off the back of TTIP and CETA so they're very mindful of what comes next.”
As Dearn says, trade mechanisms, and the process of their negotiation, need to be transparent and accountable as we need to make sure things are done in the best interests of people, animals and the planet, and not just profit. We need to look at what it is that could be “negotiated away.”
There are many ways we can try and 'take back control' in post-Brexit Britain, including working from the grassroots to challenge neoliberal politics and the power of multinational corporations in the ways we work and live. There also needs to be more pressure on our politicians to stop them treating environmental protection, safety and public services as troublesome 'red tape' to be slashed away.